Times are tough for the hospitality industry. We find ourselves not only having to deal with ever-changing rules and restrictions, but also engaged in two arguments. The first is about the value of its existence, which, make no mistake, is under threat. The second is about whether it is posing a risk to our collective well-being.
I found myself arguing over the second of those points with radio presenter James O’Brien on Twitter earlier this week.
O’Brien had tweeted that the reopening of hospitality, and in particular Eat Out to Help Out, preceded the spike in cases and therefore was the cause. Given that he has written a book called How To Be Right, I thought it was important to point out why I thought it was wrong. Just because one thing precedes another does not mean that it is the cause.
In fairness to him, he took my criticism in good spirit and we ended up having a good natured discussion (yes, that can happen on Twitter!)
The point I wanted to make was this. Restaurants and pubs reopened on July 4 after 106 days of mandated closure and a Herculean effort to become Covid-secure. This involved enhanced hygiene, social distancing, new rules and guidance for staff to follow, and enhanced regulation from local government.
In August, Eat Out to Help Out resulted in more people visiting our venues on Monday to Wednesday, traditionally the quietest days of the week. We served millions more customers, and yet cases remained low.
In September (a time when people started returning from foreign holidays, going back to work, school or university) cases started climbing. A lot of people jumped to the conclusion that hospitality must be to blame. Since then more restrictions have been imposed. These include the rule of six, national curfew, local restrictions and stricter national restrictions in Scotland as of Friday.
Where is the evidence that links cases to hospitality? It certainly isn’t to be found in the Public Health England data, which shows only 3pc to 5, of Acute Respiratory Incidents or Covid-19 Clusters can be linked to hospitality.
It also isn’t to be found in NHS Test and Trace back-tracing data, which shows only about 6pc of close contacts were in “leisure” (of which hospitality is a subset). Even though the most common event recorded by people who tested positive was eating out (14.6pc), this doesn’t mean hospitality is the cause or that by removing hospitality you would reduce infection. It just means that people who contract coronavirus are likely to be those who socialise.
Some politicians, journalists and members of the public would like to believe that we can control whether and when people socialise. In reality, people are socialising, whether you like it or not. Many are doing so within the guidelines/laws, quite a few (including some students, England footballers and senior politicians) are not. We should be focusing on where people socialise.
The real question is clear: is the preference for people to socialise in regulated, Covid-secure spaces where abiding by the rules is a condition of entry, or in private unregulated spaces where checks on adherence are impossible? Because, short of a national lockdown, socialising is going to continue.
And this is the point where we in the hospitality industry have to argue for our existence. We are standing on the precipice. Many businesses and many jobs have already fallen. One in five hospitality businesses have yet to reopen.
These are the roughly 28,000 to 30,000 premises at risk of permanent closure; many will be independent businesses lost for good. The jobs of the 900,000 people who remain on furlough are now at significant risk. Those numbers could easily rise further if there are additional restrictions.
It is no exaggeration to say that recent restrictions and their effect on national confidence have eroded the thinnest of profit margins. The majority of businesses in our industry are operating with no reserves of cash and with crippling debts. All over the country businesses are failing and people in hospitality are losing their jobs. It gets worse with each passing week.
Before Covid, the hospitality industry employed 3.2m people – that's one in nine of us. It is many people’s first job. We knit together communities and provide spaces for family, friends, colleagues and strangers to enjoy each other’s company. We can operate and fulfil our role safely: we can raise people’s hopes and spirits while keeping them safe and employing large numbers of workers in every corner of the country.
No one doubts that we are dealing with an ethical dilemma and trade-offs will have to be made. As we make those decisions as a society, the hospitality industry needs you to know that the path we are on will be fatal not just for businesses and jobs within this industry but potentially for the industry itself.
Hospitality is a true British success story. We have learned that it is part of the fabric of our lives. We cannot let it fail.
Will Beckett is one of the founders of Hawksmoor